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2012 Rough Cut Film Festival highlights Penn Law students’ visual advocacy, critical legal issues

April 19, 2012

By Jenny Chung C’12

Four films by Penn Law students premiered the evening of April 18 at the Law School’s Michael A. Fitts Auditorium, marking the third annual Rough Cut Film Festival.

The festival offered the student filmmakers a venue for presenting works-in-progress completed under the supervision of Professor Regina Austin, who teaches the visual legal advocacy seminar and directs the Penn Program on Documentaries and the Law, and Jason Hinmon of Penn Law ITS who oversees the Law School’s Digital Media Lab.

Austin prefaced the screenings with a request for audience feedback after the show; she reminded those in attendance of the “measure of courage [required] to present ‘rough cuts’ to lawyers and other experts with years of experience.” Each film, half an hour in length, was followed by a brief question-and-answer session in which audience members communicated inquiries and suggestions directly to the filmmakers.


Disabled: SSI and Aiding Children in Need

The evening opened with Disabled, which documented the difficulties confronting families seeking federal aid to care for children with disabilities.

Featuring interviews with parents of disabled children, legal advocates and lawmakers, the film revealed the impact of revisions to the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) Act introduced as a result of welfare reform legislation passed in 1996. A more stringent test of eligibility, which now mandates the individual evaluation of each child’s functionality as part of her or his assessment, caused over 100,000 children to lose their benefits.  While well over 60 percent of children who apply for benefits are now denied, the film goes on to explain that the House of Representatives recently passed a resolution to cut $1.4 billion from the program in the interest of reducing spending.

According to attorney Rebecca Vallas of Community Legal Services, SSI eligibility secures families a mere $698 per month, which still leaves most children receiving SSI aid living below the poverty level. Vallas characterized the program as a source of “critical support but modest benefit.”

One parent spoke to the hardships of enrolling her child, diagnosed with autism, in a daycare system ill-equipped to attend to his needs. Another related how her work hours prevented her from sending her child on regular visits to a center staffed by experts in treating his condition. “He’s losing all that time with people working with him and being around children similar to him,” she said. “I can’t be at home at three when the bus arrives because I have to work…[he’s] being sacrificed. I wish I could balance both things.”

Emphasizing the need for policy reform, Vallas asserted that “threats to SSI for kids are real—not just speculative.” 
Pushed Out and Forgotten: Philadelphia’s Youth and the School-to-Prison Pipeline

Pushed Out and Forgotten addressed aspects of the disciplinary practices of the Philadelphia public school system that contribute to high dropout and incarceration rates.

Noting the recent focus in media reports on the violence of Philadelphia youth, Monique N. Luse, Zubrow Fellow at the Juvenile Law Center, enjoined audiences to recall that the few incidents reported “are small instances that are not the rule—the majority of students want to learn and to be successful.” For this reason, she said, “policies must […] promote positive outcomes instead of preventing small instances of negative behavior.” Devices like metal detectors and surveillance cameras which treat the general school population like criminals have negative consequences.

Due to the imposition of zero tolerance policies and draconian disciplinary measures, students are often suspended or expelled from  school for minor infractions or sent to disciplinary schools, which compromises both their will to learn and their access to educational opportunities.

Deborah Gordon Klehr, an attorney at the Education Law Center of Pennsylvania, suggested that instructors take advantage of “teachable moments to work with students to correct future behavior instead of kicking them out of school or calling the police.”

The video concluded by enumerating the following approaches parents and community leaders can adopt in dealing with schools on behalf of students: demand your rights, recognize that discretion is allowed and ask for it, advocate for change within the school district, lobby elected officials for legal reforms and hire a lawyer.
Between Worlds: The Path to Independence for Immigrant Survivors of Domestic Violence
The third video of the festival, Between Worlds: The Path to Independence for Immigrant Survivors of Domestic Violence, centered on the various legal obstacles faced by immigrant victims of domestic abuse.
According to Penn Law Professor Sarah Paoletti, the “question of status” remains the “primary issue” for immigrant women suffering abuse. “[Immigrant victims of abuse] are often from mixed-status families,” Paoletti said. “Even if the victim is a citizen, if someone in the household isn’t, she may be reluctant to risk calling the police, having law enforcement coming into the home, discovering their immigration status and initiating removal proceedings.” She added that immigrant victims may also be concerned about the arrest of the abusive wage earner on whom the family is dependent for support, or potential removal of one’s children.

While many hold the erroneous belief that there are no means of relief available to immigrant victims of domestic violence whose spouses or partners have not acted to secure their immigration status, there are in fact two options. Both the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) and the U-Visa program provide a way for victims to obtain identification and employment authorization once proof of abuse (in the case of the former) or proof of cooperation with law enforcement against the perpetrator (in the latter case) is obtained.

Though such options exist, victims continue to face barriers in reaching out to law enforcement, the courts and medical institutions for help. “Immigrant communities are much more afraid to report instances of violence [and] crime because they fear the police may turn them over to immigration,” Paoletti explained. “A person’s immigration status should not be relevant to seeking relief, and no questions should be raised [about it] in that context.” 
Pay Up! Criminal Justice Debt in Philadelphia
The final film, Pay Up!, depicts the effects of Philadelphia courts now attempting to collect an estimated $1.5 billion in unpaid bail owed by an estimated 400,000 people.
The debt encompasses court fees, parole or probation supervision fees and bail forfeitures stemming from defendants’ contact with the criminal justice system. Unlike civil debt, no statute of limitations applies, and the City may claim payments dating back to the 1970s.

The consequences of failing to pay the charges or enroll in a payment plan are dire: seizure of assets, a freeze on public benefits or even incarceration.

According to attorney Sharon Dietrich of Community Legal Services, approximately 70 percent of those billed were “elderly, disabled, impoverished, underemployed or unemployed.”

Pennsylvania State Senator Shirley M. Kitchen identified the practice as “another example of kicking the poor down,” of  the “budget… being balanced on the backs of the poor, working and middle classes.”

However, Dominic Rossi, deputy court administrator at the First Judicial District of Pennsylvania, stated that “defendants have any number of opportunities to come in and ask for the order to be reduced or payment plan to be reset.”

Significantly, failure to pay court debts can have a substantial impact on those seeking expungement of or a pardon from prior convictions.

“It’s a barrier to the two primary ways in which people can get a fresh start,” Vallas said.